On a humid weeknight in August, I found myself at a hardcore punk show at The Meatlocker, a long-running underground music venue — and literal basement — located in the Manhattan suburb of Montclair, New Jersey. Leading to the main stage downstairs, the walls were covered with inscrutable death metal stickers, spray-painted expletives, and Sharpie doodles of genitalia. The band Knee-Jerk ripped through minute-long songs about social anxiety and how our government is trash, as distorted fractals shot onto them from a digital projector. In between songs, the frontman alternated between chugging a can of Budweiser and a tiny bottle of honey, presumably to ease the pain he was inflicting on his vocal cords from all that bellowing.
After Knee-Jerk’s set, attendees came outside to shmooze, smoke, and respond to texts — typical ways to kill time at a hardcore punk show until the next act is done setting up their gear. Those who were famished, however, had another option: grab a bite to eat at The Meatlocker’s very own vegan restaurant next door. While there are other restaurant-venues across the country that also host DIY/underground music, The Meatlocker, in conjunction with Montclair Vegan, is perhaps the only of its kind with a 100% vegan menu.
Montclair Vegan has quickly become one of the most popular vegan spots in North Jersey. Drawing inspiration from the fare at Foodswings in Brooklyn (which closed in 2014), Montclair Vegan specializes in affordable comfort/junk food like loaded tots and nachos, “chicken” and “meatball parm” sandwiches, and dazzling aquafaba donuts (via Dopeas Donuts).
As co-owners Jake Blochinger and Dan Rivas tell me, it all started by accident. A lot of the groups who play at The Meatlocker don’t eat meat (despite the venue’s name), but the only other place to get vegan/vegetarian food at 2 AM — when shows usually wrap up — is Taco Bell, which is a 20 minute drive away. So in the venue’s upstairs hallway, Rivas, who’s in charge of booking shows, used to grill up veggies and tofu dogs for the musicians on an electric griddle he bought at Walmart. When Rivas learned that a space opened next door at the Park Street Market, a sort of boutique food court, he decided to move the griddle there.
The co-owners are involved in the local punk and metal scenes, and they’ve played on numerous bills together at The Meatlocker. Rivas is bassist/vocalist for the sludge metal outfit Dutchguts, while Blochinger has drummed in the hardcore punk group The Banner; he currently drums in a different hardcore group, called Grace. In addition, Blochinger has over a decade’s worth of restaurant experience. “I cooked in everything from Mexican cuisine to Japanese,” he says. “Japanese was where I experienced a lot of vegan stuff — that was about ten years ago in Colorado. Then I worked at a French bistro in New York City, and I’ve worked in pizza places in Colorado, New Jersey, California — I’ve done a little bit of everything.”
He helped evolve Montclair Vegan from just Rivas and his griddle to a legit restaurant, with a well-rounded menu and a cooking staff working in the main kitchen facility at the Park Street Market. The restaurant was only open three nights a week when it started around a year and a half ago, but within three months they were bringing in serious patronage — ”A lot of people wanted us to be open for lunch,” notes Blochinger. So they upped the hours and days of operation, along with the staff size.
For bands traveling through the New York metropolitan area that don’t want to be limited to playing gigs in Manhattan and Brooklyn, The Meatlocker is an ideal tour stop, just under half an hour outside the Lincoln Tunnel. This explains why the venue, which has been around for the past three decades, has featured so many celebrated names in contemporary metal (Full of Hell, Thou, Primitive Man) and indie rock (Wavves, Ted Leo, The Front Bottoms) from New Jersey and the rest of the country.
As sought after as The Meatlocker has always been, Montclair Vegan has helped attract even more touring bands than before, thanks to word-of-mouth among vegan musicians. “We try to always help out whatever touring bands play here, we tell them to come upstairs and eat,” says Rivas. Following a voucher/allowance system, he and Blochinger provide free meals to touring bands based on how many members they have.
Many of the groups who come to The Meatlocker forgo meat, in part because veganism has been a staple of underground music ever since the rise of punk in the 80’s — and Montclair Vegan taps right into this tradition. In one way or another, through lifestyle choices like communal living or riding a bicycle everywhere, those involved in the subculture aim to live out their vision of a more conscientious, equitable world.
Hardcore punk has been the predominant outlet for voicing such values as the importance of supporting animal rights. Cro-Mags ask listeners on their 1989 classic “Death Camps,” “Do you really wanna be responsible / For the brutal slaughter of the animals?” And from Youth of Today’s 1988 track “No More”: “Meat eating flesh eating think about it / So callous to this crime we commit / Always stuffing our face with no sympathy.” These aren’t even the most caustic examples of lyrics, though they illustrate the polemical attitudes common among such bands.
Veganism became a tenet of the punk subculture, and went on to permeate other scenes within underground music, through a self-fulfilling cycle: Punk bands singing about animal rights inspired fans to change their eating habits and create their own zines full of essays on going vegan, including tons of vegan recipes — all of which inspired more people to make music and zines in line with animal rights. Having this mass, supportive community over the years has been crucial to self-identified punks for retaining their veganism, where it’s less sustainable for people to adopt this lifestyle without a strong social network.
This history gives Montclair Vegan potential to convert their next customer — yet another suburban kid, maybe, who’ll experience punk music for the first time and become devoted to it. All it could take is ordering some delicious soy drumsticks (courtesy of May Wah Market), or the infamous “Randy Meagan Burger,” named after a mysterious internet persona who occasionally messes with the co-owners over social media.
Some of the families that come for dinner are thrown off by the staff’s gritty, all-black attire, while others are curious about what’s happening over at The Meatlocker. “They go outside and see a bunch of kids loading in drums or guitars, and sometimes they’ll go and check it out,” says Blochinger. “We get they’re probably not going to like it, so we’ll just be like, ‘Go downstairs, if you like what you see give a little donation, but you might not, so it’s not a problem.’”